Welcome to the 133rd year at Ouachita Baptist University!
Convocation formally brings together what makes Ouachita such a special place: students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate our Vision, Mission and Values.
This year we’re especially emphasizing one phrase of our mission statement. Between now and Commencement, we’ll explore what’s involved in developing “lives of meaningful work.”
To help us begin this year-long conversation, I want to share three thoughts on our theme: (1) What I’ve learned, (2) What I’d recommend and (3) What I’d like you to remember.
What I’ve Learned
What I’ve learned: Meaningful work is actually difficult to experience.
According to David Graber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, about 40 percent of employees self-report that their jobs make no difference. In other words, they believe that if their job disappeared it would make no difference to anyone.1
It’s also important to note that we all can too easily assume that career success will automatically result in meaningful work.
Actor Jim Carrey and I were both born in 1962, so I’ve followed his career. Listen to a statement he made: “Getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy – and that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”
Carrey’s statement is part of an article by Kirsten Powers who then makes this observation: “…as Carrey points out, in many ways achieving all your goals provides the opposite of fulfillment: If you lay bare the truth that there is nothing you can purchase, possess or achieve that will make you fulfilled over the long-term.”2
“Fulfilled over the long-term.” Isn’t that the essence of meaningful work? As a Christian university, “Lives of Meaningful Work” is in our mission statement because we believe it’s important.
But, as these two examples help demonstrate, what I’ve learned: a life of meaningful work isn’t guaranteed, it’s difficult, and it’s easy to be deceived by external success.
As a result, I want to share: What I’d recommend – one piece of practical advice; and what I’d like you to remember – one spiritual truth.
What I’d Recommend
Some practical advice: In preparing for our theme, I spent the summer reviewing my 56 years of life. I developed a clear insight about my own efforts to experience meaningful work. Finding meaningful work, at least for me, has required developing resilience over a long span of time.
I became a university president, work I love and feel called to do, not in a glorious, spontaneous rise to academic gowns and bling. It was by God’s grace and a host of reasons, and I believe it was because of determined resilience to not give up when faced with the dead-ends and plot twists of my own life’s story.
I’ve realized that some of my most important career moments happened when I wasn’t exactly succeeding. Allow me to briefly share four … though there are many more.
One example: As a high school junior, after spending time in Washington, D.C., with students from around the country, I was drawn to politics as a pathway for meaningful work. I returned home and ran for student body president, confident that friends would choose me. I remember so clearly the results being announced over the public address system: I lost the election. What a setback. I was embarrassed. I went home – dejected and discouraged.
A second example: About a decade into our marriage, Lisa and I applied to become career missionaries with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. We had already spent a year in China, were active in our church and had three young children. We were that couple that said,
“Lord, here we are; send us to a difficult place to help make you better known.”
It would be hard but meaningful work. I remember so clearly opening the letter that informed us
that we wouldn’t be appointed because of a health reason. What a setback to not be able to follow what seemed like God’s calling.
A third example: My parents were important sources of advice and encouragement
about career, jobs and significant life decisions. And then everything changed. I remember so clearly being in the hospital room, hearing the surprising news that my mother – who seemed so healthy – had stage four cancer. She died within six months. And then nine months later, I remember getting the phone call that my father had suddenly died. From that point forward,
I would face major decisions without their wisdom and support.
One more example: During my first two years in this role, my work has felt especially meaningful. It’s meaningful because of the mission of Ouachita, the people in this room and all who care about our university. I’m excited about the future.
Yet, coming here meant moving a long way from our adult children. It involved family upheaval. It’s difficult to separate work – even when it’s meaningful – from the rest of life.
As I prepared today’s remarks, I initially imagined that the theme of “meaningful work” would conjure up successes. Like you, I want meaningful work to be stories of lives changed, dreams achieved and happy endings for all.
However, life as we live it has a way of dashing hopes, changing outcomes and redirecting work. In every one of those pivot points in my life – all times when I was earnestly striving to do the work I felt called to do – there were setbacks.
I can assure you, your life will be no different. Even if you aspire to the most profoundly meaningful work, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find the way easy. However, I can also assure you that the setbacks can be useful. They helped me develop resilience, and resilience has helped me develop a life of meaningful work.
I shared in New Beginnings the following illustration, and I want to share it again. In the book, The Purposeful Graduate, which studied thousands of students at many different universities,
one characteristic emerged above all others related to succeeding, thriving and finding meaning
as a college student.3
The good news: It’s not related to ACT score, gender, skin color, height, weight, family income, place of birth or a host of other factors, most of which you can’t control.
The really good news: It’s a characteristic you can control, that you can develop. It’s called resilience. And what’s resilience? It’s a belief, an attitude, a behavior marked by perseverance, persistence and passion for goals – goals that are academic, career, social, spiritual and more.
Because developing a life of meaningful work is difficult, allow me to recommend some practical advice: You will learn here at Ouachita. And just as importantly, you will be challenged again and again: challenged to start over, to try new things, to meet new people – and more.
The resilience you develop here will help you now and will help you find meaningful work when you graduate. Now, allow me to share what I’d like you to remember – one spiritual truth.
What I’d Like You to Remember
One of the benefits of regular Bible reading and prayer, which began for me in college: It has shaped and directed my life for many years. It helps me think rightly about life – and about work.
When the summer began, I decided to read the Book of Philippians many times – and I probably read it 50 times over the past three months. As I thought again and again about my own career setbacks, the verse that continued to resonate with me was Philippians 1:6 where Paul writes: “I am sure that God who began the good work in you will keep on working in you until the day Jesus Christ comes again.”4
At age 16, when I didn’t become student body president and launch my political career, this verse was true. Then, I didn’t have much life experience that demonstrated it was true. Now I do.
When my various setbacks occurred, they were hard and they hurt. In the moment, it wasn’t always clear how God was working, and there are some setbacks I still don’t fully understand. However, now, with the benefit of time, I can say that in the setbacks God was at work.
For example, I didn’t get to be a career missionary in the way we imagined. Yet, three years after that setback, I was asked to work at the International Mission Board’s home office to start a global leadership program. It changed my life. I became a better leader because for seven years I studied under national experts and read, wrote and taught others about leadership while traveling around the world.
I learned a crucial lesson: The best way to develop leadership is to have opportunities to lead. That insight shapes my current work. At a place like Ouachita, because there are so manystudent-led organizations and activities, you actually have opportunities to serve and to lead in ways you usually don’t have at a larger university. And, I believe it can help you develop your leadership and, in turn, find a life of meaningful work.
What am I trying to say? In the successes, in the setbacks and in everything else, I have experienced the reality of this verse: “I am sure that God who began the good work in you will keep on working in you until the day Jesus Christ comes again.”
But, it’s premature to stop here because we must ask two questions: “Why was Paul able to make this claim?” and “Why can we believe it?” The answer can be found in Philippians 2:5-11, the verses we read earlier, and it’s essential to developing lives of meaningful work.
This passage is so famous and yet so familiar that we can miss why it’s so foundational. Rather than reading it again, allow me to say it in my own words, a process I find helpful to better grasp the meaning of a Biblical passage. Here’s my attempt:
There is one true God of the universe who is fundamentally distinct and different from all the other gods and all the things that are like a god in our lives.
This God became human in the form of Jesus Christ, living and working among real people. And, He behaved like a servant, seeking humility rather than honor.
This God who became human was unjustly killed and in the most inhumane way. His death appeared to be a success for the rulers and a setback for His followers. But then the great reversal happened.
The God of the universe brought Jesus back to life and placed Him above all peoples, all powers and all places for all time.
As a result, we can have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
It’s a broken world being made right but it won’t fully be made right until Christ returns. Until then, He wants to work in us and through us to accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven during our generation.
Through us, He desires for our neighbors near and far to know Him. Through us, He wants us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
That’s the passage in my own words. Because of this great reality, Paul could write to the Philippians – and to Ouachitonians – and we can believe: “I am sure that God who began the good work in you will keep on working in you until the day Jesus Christ comes again.”
Because developing a life of meaningful work is difficult. I’d like you to remember a spiritual truth: If you want a life of meaningful work, as a student and after you graduate, trust God in your life and in His providence for all your life, in all things – the successes and the setbacks.
Pursuing Lives of Meaningful Work
This summer, as I thought deeply about our theme and prepared my remarks to help us begin a year-long conversation on “lives of meaningful work,” I found it could be summarized in three statements:
First, what I learned: Work is part of being human and we all desire for it to be meaningful. It’s important, it’s Biblical and we want to help prepare you, which is why it’s in our university mission statement. However, having a life of meaningful work isn’t automatic because you earn a college degree or possess a Christian faith. It’s difficult, and we can be deceived in its pursuit.
Second, what I’d recommend – some practical advice: Based on research and my own life experience, having a life of meaningful work requires developing resilience.
Third, what I’d like you to remember – one spiritual truth: Based on the Bible and my own life experience, having a life of meaningful work involves trusting God’s providence for your life.
Because I know Ouachita students, faculty and staff, I know we’ll experience many successes inside and outside the classroom, within and beyond this campus during 2018-19. I can’t wait!
Because we live in a flawed world, we know there will be setbacks. We thank the Lord in advance for both.
We have many prayer requests for the people of Ouachita, and we specifically ask that we grow in understanding and in experiencing lives of meaningful work.
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